Tuesday, November 11, 2008

5 reasons why Obama is Human (Not Zeus, Jesus, or Mohammad)

This last week has been full of reflections on and theories of why Obama won. The economy (linked to Bush linked to McCain). The Palin factor. Increased voting registration. Organizing. Media bias. Or the great man theory about Obama the demigod. Few are actually nuanced, rounded treatments that can help us understand how campaigns work these days and what to expect in the future.

Shakespeare famously wrote that some men are born into greatness; some achieve greatness; and others have greatness thrust upon them. Political Communication scholars would add that some have communications teams that spend great time and money in constructing greatness.
Barack Obama is a great man, with excellent communication talents, but that is not enough to have won this election alone. Consider these five reasons, and a caveat.


1. The political economy of campaigning
Square one in U.S. presidential (to say nothing of other) campaigns. It pays for the campaign's enormous industry, everything from food for staff and volunteers, to ad production and space/distribution, travel, polling, focus groups, etc. In 2000 and 2004, Republicans and their surrogate attack groups outspent and out-financed the Democrats, especially in the crucial final push of the last two months. Obama built on the insights of Howard Dean, whose net-fundraising astounded in the last presidential election and continued in his role as Chairman of the party. Obama outspent McCain 4 to 1 the first half of October and by 3 to 1 on TV ads the final week of the campaign.

Obama's record shattering fundraising in August and September helped him expand the field of competitive states, putting pressure on McCain in places where he had hoped to coast without investing more money. The "Great Man" outspent by his opposition is at much greater risk to lose. But now one should consider the shrewd and novel use of that record fundraising.

2. Communication strategies
Contrary to some claims, Obama hardly skipped through a media lovefest. He was forced to respond to his associations with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the attacks of which were considerably weakened after Obama delivered a powerful speech on race, a polarizing subject he struggled to keep off the media agenda (as he more or less did with gay marriage). Rumors that his wife used the derogative "Whitey" stalked him throughout. As late as September, a Yahoo-AP poll revealed some important information about the race issue. When asked "how much discrimination against blacks" exists, 10 percent of whites said "a lot" and 45 percent said "some." In contrast, among blacks, 57 percent said "a lot" and all but a fraction of the rest said "some."

Obama was able to preempt his opposition from baiting him with issues like affirmative action. Instead of completely opposing it, he called for expanding it to poor whites, while denying it to privileged blacks like his own two daughters. Instead of falling into the trap of exclusive language, he went inclusive. This may be part of the reason why he was more popular than Kerry with white male voters, even though they still favored McCain, a point his team carefully considered. Therein lay the paradox that race didn't play much of a role in this election. It didn't play an overtly big role, it played a covertly big role, erupting on the media agenda inconsistently, partly due to Obama's astute maneuvering.

Nonetheless, race haunted him with religion rumor bombs on the Internet. Viral emails and comments on blogs claimed he was a Muslim and an Arab, often with appeals to the supposed evidence of his name, which was ruthlessly exploited in turns such as "Obama Bin Laden," and Barack HUSSEIN Obama. He was said to have been raised in Muslim schools, and was not even born in the U.S. These rumor bombs laid the ground for later ones that claimed he was a terrorist, their circulation aided by Palin's innuendos up to election day. He "pal-ed around" with former Weather Underground "terrorist" Bill Ayers, she said. Videotaped excerpts of McCain-Palin rallies demonstrate a widespread repetition of this tripartite rumor bomb, never mind the obvious contradiction with the earlier attacks on Obama for his association with Christian minister Jeremiah Wright.

Obama dealt with these latter attacks astutely. Careful not to reproduce the rumor bombs himself, he benefited from important character testimonials, the most powerful of which may have been the endorsement by Colin Powell in the last month of the election (even while pundits like Sean Hannity accused him of simple race favoritism). He spoke of his great capitalist friend Warren Buffet, which allowed him to partly defuse rumor bombs that he was a socialist. He spent money on well-crafted ads (and before that, a book/recording) that told how his very life was a version of the American Dream. Unlike some past candidates, he was hardly privileged, even though his achievements took him to the top of his class at Harvard law school, and beyond.

One could also consider the well-wrought, competitive cliches that formed Obama's brand, which were influenced by recent research into the effects of particular words on the brain and its emotional responses. Not more government, but better leadership. Not more taxes, but a break for the middle-class, the middle-class, the middle-class. Change. Hope. McCain was linked with Bush, stasis, depression, dishonesty, as much as McCain tried vainly to emphasize his "maverick" record and life testament to patriotism.

All of these skillful messages and responses should be considered within the context of his fundraising. He and his team not only responded well in message; they also diffused them strategically and widely, which cost money.

3. Negotiation of Media Convergence
Obama's communication strategies also must be viewed not just in terms of their content but also their groundbreaking genres and forms, again a product more of his organization than of him as a man of superior abilities. His campaign negotiated convergence culture, the contemporary collision of old and new forms of media, from newspapers, radio, and TV, to satellite, Internet, text messages, and video games. Some of the most groundbreaking included buying "stealth" ads embedded within the sets of X-system video games; and a satellite Obama channel with 24-7 ads. His team was incredibly up-to-date with especially young adults' complex media consumption habits.

If the Internet was full of dangerous potentially persuasive rumor bombs dropped on vulnerable undecideds, his campaign would update the WWII version of the anti-propaganda “rumor clinic." Instead of relying on factcheck.org, snopes.com, etc. the Obama campaign started their own: Fightthesmears.com

Furthermore, the Obama campaign was hip to the fact that studies show Internet users don't just get their political information from the Internet; they blend it with traditional news sources. Thus, TV and radio ads, and an ultimate ½ hour slot on Oct. 30 (last used by Ross Perot) were complemented by SMS, emails, and viral video (the latter with which the McCain campaign had scored, comparing Obama's allegedly hollow celebrity status to Paris Hilton). Again, these strategies were brilliant but could not have been executed as effectively without powerful financial backing and labor. And yet, despite all these factors that exceed the man himself and on which his successful candidature was necessarily dependent, one can not deny that he is a man of extraordinary talent.

4. Obama’s own communication skills
McCain face Pictures, Images and PhotosObama was calm, respectful, affable (not too stiff, not too loose), more gaffe-proof than his opposition. As James Fallows reminded us in a keen preview of the debates, image is everything; it is the argument. "As with trial testimony, job interviews, and blind dates, seeing people interact is the only way to understand what is going on," Fallows wrote. "We don’t watch debates to learn what someone thinks about Social Security. We watch to see how the contenders look next to their opponents, how they react when challenged, how well or poorly they come up with the words we later see in print." Thus, McCain was seen as condescending, not deigning to look directly at Obama. He was parodied as senile, wandering around the stage, looking for his dog Mr. Puddles, as John Stewart joked. Or he was racist, said some pundits when during the last debate McCain referred to Obama as "That one!" Obama, on the other hand, remained cool, showing human warmth from time to time with moderate laughs, and grins. His performances were free of eye-rolling, frustrated sighs, and cheesily memorable phrases of recent predecessors.

One should not forget that Obama also responded eloquently on the spot during key events. When McCain sought to construct himself as the heroic statesman willing to drop his campaign until he could broker a senate package for the financial crisis, calling for the postponement of the second debate, Obama quipped, "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time; it is not necessary for us to think we can do only one thing and suspend everything else." Similarly, when Palin's terrorist-crony accusations were at a high pitch and he was asked about his relationship to Bill Ayers, Obama was able to turn the ethical question back on the McCain-Palin campaign. “This is someone who committed despicable acts 40 years ago when I was only eight,” Obama insisted, leaving his audience to infer that the association was an illogical, dishonest smear. One could go on with the examples, perhaps revisiting his struggle with Hillary Clinton. But the fact stands: despite Obama's considerable oratorical prudence, it is unclear his own qualities and message could’ve carried the day without all the other confluence of factors in his favor, which brings us to media coverage.

5. The media coverage: agenda, distribution of attention, and bias charges
Recent studies have shown that Obama received more coverage/attention overall than did McCain, while Sara Palin received more than Joe Biden. Likewise, Obama received more "positive" coverage than McCain, while Palin received more negative coverage than Biden.
But there are other inferences besides bias that can be drawn from this data. For many Americans Obama was an obscure public figure in national public life when this campaign began. McCain and Biden have had considerably longer careers in national public life, McCain especially after having been Bush's major challenger for the nomination in 2000. Palin was perhaps even less known than Obama. One could interpret this data as evidence that the media was serving an important democratic function, giving the public important information it needed to make a serious electoral decision.

Additionally, consider the abilities of the candidates again and the material they provided to reporters and unofficial newscasters, such as John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live. There were not really the risible pseudo-events that the French John Kerry provided, riding a motorcycle into the Tonight Show, or going hunting, both to reassure voters of his masculinity attacked by Swiftboaters and French-callers. On the other hand, McCain, as has already been mentioned, provided plenty of visual joke fodder. But it was nothing compared to Palin's airheaded interview with Katie Couric, and comments about not really knowing what the vice-president does, as well as spying Russia from Alaska as somehow training her for foreign policy work. It was not necessarily that the media favored one over the other, though I'm sure some reporters were as horrified as other citizens by the base populism Palin peddled to cover up her appalling ignorance.

Besides, the Obama-as-celebrity phenomenon fit nicely with contemporary news values which love celebrity in general. It's difficult to put it any more precisely than conservative CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, who observed (CNN.com, 7/24/08), ‘The Media’ aren’t around for their health, they’re around to make money, and if Obama drives sales or ratings, then I can’t really blame them for continuing to tap that well until it runs dry.” Besides, the celebrity treatment was hardly all backrubs. The rumor bombs about race, religion, and terrorism belong to the widespread culture of infotainment.

The Caveat
In conclusion, a candidate, even a great one, is the product of a complex economic and symbolic process that certainly transcends his or her own personal abilities. And in addition, there is always the factor of historical specificity. The issue agenda partly responded to events beyond the control of the candidates. Immigration issues faded into the Iraq war, which faded into the economy, which was abruptly overtaken by the more specific financial crisis. Gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, immigration--past Republican wedge issues--did not play well on the mainstream agenda, even if Obama had the difficult choice of largely ignoring them. Obama was making history, just as history was making him.

Just as Carter was severely weakened by a hostage situation beyond his control and a sluggish economy in 1980, McCain was the party brand associated with a disastrous war in Iraq and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. No matter how much he cried "maverick," he was still the bearer of a discredited brand, a man who though a great patriot lacked rhetorical skills to tame history, evidenced by his visual and verbal gaffes. Obama had to take advantage of this situation or lose it. Obama performed outstandingly, and 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, he has made history while all the world looks on at his indisputable greatness.
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